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Shutter speed demon: Camera takes trillion frames per second

MIT researchers concoct a camera that captures so many frames per second it can track the movement of photons. Photons! And it could even help you take better pictures, eventually.

Imagine adding beautiful lighting to a photo after you took the picture.

A camera developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology could get you there. But first, let's talk speed: This one-of-a-kind camera can track the movement of individual packets of light, or photons, by capturing 1 trillion frames per second.

The high-speed imaging system allows researchers to capture how light scatters across an object in very fine detail. It opens up the possibility of doing three-dimensional ultrasound scans with light, testing for defects during manufacturing, and giving consumer-grade cameras the ability to overlay light after a photo is taken.

Although it's still just a goal, MIT Media Lab associate professor Ramesh Raskar says the imaging system could let a consumer with a small flash take studio-quality photos.

"With our ultrafast imaging, we can actually analyze how the photons are traveling through the world. And then we can recreate a new photo by creating the illusion that the photons started somewhere else," Raskar said in a statement.

A time-lapse visualization of how ripples of light are reflected on surfaces of objects. Ramesh Raskar/MIT

Capturing how individual photons bounce around a scene and travel inside an object doesn't come cheap. The ultrafast camera uses $250,000 of equipment, including a titanium sapphire laser and a streak camera adapted for high-speed photography. Normally used to determine the chemical composition of a material, a streak camera is an array of 500 sensors each triggered to capture light 1 trillion times per second.

The cameras shoot light in only dimension but then a rotating mirror takes images from different perspectives. That creates a huge amount of data that then needs to be analyzed and compiled to create a video of the movement of light over or inside an object.

"Because we can see those photons, we could use them to look inside objects--for example, for medical imaging, or to identify materials," said MIT Media Lab postdoctoral associate Andreas Velten.